Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Divine Impassibility Under Attack: Does God have Passions? (Part 1)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 11, 2014 at 5:40 am


The doctrine of God’s impassibility has seized the attention of many in the Reformed Baptist world. This is partly due to the recent reappearance of Dr. Robert Gonzales’ lengthy reframing of the doctrine on his blog, It Is Written. It would appear that he has gained a few sympathizers along the way, but the hope is that such sympathy is the consequence of misunderstanding rather than actual misgivings about the confessional and classical understanding of impassibility. What follows is an attempt to give a relatively brief and accessible critique of Gonzales’ position. He has put before us a view of impassibility that undermines the perfections, absoluteness, aseity, and immutability of God, and treats the eternity and transcendence of God as though they were a problem that He must overcome.

What is meant by Impassibility?

The word impassibility has reference to the London Baptist Confession’s statement that God is “without. . . passions” (LBC 2:1). Does God have passions (passio/pati)? When we hear the word passion, we might think of the ‘passion of Christ,’ which refers to the suffering of Christ. Therefore, to say that God is impassible, or without passions, is to say that God, as God, cannot suffer. But merely to equate passion with the passive suffering victim, or impassibility with the inability to suffer, would be an oversimplification.

The theological tradition, from which our confessional statement arose, recognized at least three nuances to the word passio (noun) or pati (infinitive) depending upon the context and subject to which it is applied. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, raises the question whether man’s intellect is a passive power (potentia passiva) of the soul, or in what sense “to understand is to undergo (pati)” change. In seeking to discover in what sense the intellect undergoes passion when someone begins to understand something, Aquinas explains that something may be said to undergo passion (pati) in three ways.

Firstly, in its most strict sense, when from a thing is taken something which belongs to it by virtue either of its nature, or of its proper inclination: as when water loses coolness by heating, and as when a man becomes ill or sad.

A passion is therefore the effect of an action that is always accompanied by change. In this first and most proper sense, a passion refers to a change for the worse, as when a man, whose natural inclination is his own happiness, loses his joy and becomes sad. But this is not the only sense in which something may be said to undergo passion.

Secondly, less strictly, a thing is said to be pati, when something, whether suitable or unsuitable, is taken away from it. And in this way not only he who is ill is said to be pati, but also he who is healed; not only he that is sad, but also he that is joyful; or whatever way he be altered or moved.

The second sense is both inclusive of, and broader than, the first. Something may be said to undergo passion whenever it suffers a loss, regardless of whether it is for the better or the worse. When a man becomes joyful he loses his sadness, and when he becomes healthy he loses his illness. This change, even if for the better, may also be called a passion. In both uses of the word, the subject undergoes some kind of loss. For something to undergo a loss, it must be composed of matter and form, for it is the matter that undergoes change. But, if we recall Aquinas’ original question, the intellect is not composed of matter and form and therefore does not undergo a loss when it begins to understand something. In what sense, then, is it said to undergo a passion?

Thirdly, in a wide sense (communiter) a thing is said to be pati, from the very fact that what is in potentiality to something receives that to which it was in potentiality, without being deprived of anything. And accordingly, whatever passes from potentiality to act, may be said to be pati, even when it is perfected. And thus with us to understand is to be pati. (Summa Theologica, I.a q.79 a.2)

The third sense is both inclusive of, and broader than, the first two; It does not presuppose the necessity of either a body/matter or a loss in order for something to undergo passion. As Mark-Robin Hoogland observes, “All bodies presuppose passiones, but not all passiones presuppose a body; passio in the third sense of the word does not” (God, Passion and Power, 118). The human intellect is one such example. When someone begins to understand something, the intellect does not suffer loss, but rather receives something. In such a case, it would not be proper to say that the intellect suffers. And yet it may still be said to undergo passion, both because the potential to be perfected implies the presence of imperfection, but also because it undergoes change when its intrinsic potential is actualized.

Reflecting upon the threefold sense above, Hoogland concludes:

What all these views of passio have in common is that pati is the consequence of an action (actio): the patiens is being acted upon, undergoes something. This undergoing may be specified by “suffering”, when an evil action is directed towards someone or something, so that his/her/its nature and integrity is violated. An action towards someone or something can also be experienced or described in a neutral sense, without a value judgment (good or bad). When in a particular context pati is used or understood in this sense, it may well be translated by the neutral word “undergoing.” It is obvious that when pati is used in the common sense [i.e., the third sense], it cannot be translated as “suffering”. In the case of knowledge “receiving” seems to cover the content: getting to know something by receiving knowledge (which presupposes an action of giving by someone or something else). Hence in all three cases “undergoing”, with a further qualification if needed, seems to be what Thomas understands by pati/passio. (112-113)

God is Impassible in the sense that He is unable to undergo “inner emotional changes of state, either of comfort or discomfort, whether freely from within or by being acted upon from without” (Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 39). In God there can be no emotional undergoing, whether conceived in a negative, neutral, or positive sense, for there is no potentiality in Him to be either corrupted or actualized in further perfection. He is in Himself pure act, most perfect, fully personal, utterly loving, in every conceivable way immutable, and absolute Being. However, it is precisely at this point, as it has been understood throughout the majority of church history, that the doctrine of divine impassibility has more recently undergone attack.

Bob Gonzales and Impassibility: Rejection by Way of Redefinition

Viewing those who seek to defend the classical and confessional view of impassibility as traditionalists clinging to an unbiblical man-made tradition overly dependent upon philosophical speculation, Gonzales espouses a view he readily describes as “something close to biblicism.” Advocating a more literal reading of the so-called biblical anthropopathisms, he chides the framers of our Confession for interpreting these passages merely with respect to the actions of God ad extra. For Gonzales, a more literal reading of these expressions is to be preferred. God in some way undergoes, ad intra, an emotional stirring in response to his people.

While the older Reformed theologians would offer correctives regarding “what God’s emotions are not”, Gonzales complains that they did not “provide a compelling positive model of divine affections.” Focusing almost exclusively on the first two definitions of passio which presuppose the sort of undergoing that involves a body, Gonzales argues that God’s incorporeality does not necessarily exclude the possibility of genuine emotional change. He asks, “why can’t God experience the psychological aspect without the physical?” In other words, because God is a transcendent, sovereign, immutable spirit, He does not come by these emotions by sense and surprise after the manner of corporeal men. While man’s emotions are the result of being acted upon from without, God’s emotions are caused from within. Quoting Rob Lister, he affirms, “God has eternally known and ordained not only his creature’s actions, but also his [read: internal and emotional] responses to those actions.” In other words, God decrees His own ad intra emotional responses that He experiences in the context of the ad extra temporal outworking of His decree. Put more simply, God decrees His own “relational mutability” and “voluntary emotions”. However, if this were correct, it would be difficult to see how God could escape the sort of passion described in Aquinas’ third definition.

Divine Impassibility Under Attack: Does God have Passions? (Part 2)

Chuck Rennie
Sycamore Baptist Church
East Moline, IL
  1. […] Check out the rest of this post (part 1 in a new series) here. […]

  2. Hi Pastor Rennie. I want you to know that I just prayed for you, and for my own heart in this response. That’s a new rule I’m trying to institute before commenting online, especially when I’ll be doing a little pushback. I don’t begrudge at all your right to enter into a series criticizing my friend and Pastor Bob Gonzales, just as I’m sure you don’t begrudge me the right to offer a brief reply. Don’t worry; I’m not one of those guys who want to write hundreds of pages in a comment box. In fact, I don’t have much stamina for prolonged online conversation period, so don’t feel like I want to duke it out in a bunch of witty back and forth banter. I don’t.

    Also, I recognize that this is part one in a series, and I’ll be reading the follow ups with interest. But I do think there are a few notes that are important for your readers to see here at the beginning. Perhaps there may even be something of interest to you in this reply. I’ll address it to you because that seems the polite thing to do, but I’m really writing to the readers at this point.

    1. You present this as though Bob Gonzales has introduced some strange new teaching to the neat and tidy world of Reformed Confessionalism. This is simply not accurate. True, you do mention Rob Lister as holding a similar view, but there are many other solid Reformed theologians who hold similar doctrine, and you fail to mention any of them. I’m not blaming you for that, as you can only say so much in one post, but I do think your readers are entitled to know that Bob Gonzales and Rob Lister have not been out in the theological kitchen cooking up strange new brews. You may find the same view they argue for from the pen of men such as Charles Hodge, J. P. Boyce, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, J. I. Packer, Greg Nichols, Sam Waldron, Brian Borgman, Michael Horton, and K. Scott Oliphint; just to name a few. There are many, many more, even many more within our own Reformed Baptist circles, but I suspect you know that already. If this debate is to be fought on the grounds of who stands with the Reformed Tradition, I hope you wont take personal offence if many of us prefer to stand with those men rather than with Chuck Rennie.

    2. Of course you’d probably respond that it’s not about what Chuck or Bob say, it’s about what the Confession says. But that only brings me to my second note. You present this as though there is only one settled understanding of the Confession’s teaching regarding God without “body, parts, or passions.” This is also not accurate. I’m not denying that one credible understanding of the Confession’s intent is indeed the Thomistic Natural Theology approach you defend, but you present it like there is no doubt as to how we should understand the Westminster/1689 language. I suspect you have read Robert Letham’s work on the Westminster Assembly, but probably many of your readers have not. Letham writes that the meaning of “passions” is “not entirely clear.” He provides three possible interpretations, and further calls two of them plausible, only one of which is in keeping with the view you seem to be presenting as an absolute settled case (the interested may read these things on pages 160-162 of Letham’s work). My point is not to advance a Confessional Gnosticism, as though we simply can’t understand it well enough to have a settled understanding on anything. But my point is to say that when there is a lack of clarity as to the exact meaning of some particular words and phrases confessional men really shouldn’t make absolute adoption of their preferred interpretation of those specific words or phrases a test of orthodoxy. I think “without… passions” is a prime example. I’m sure since you’ve carefully read Dr. Gonzales’s posts, you know that he goes out of his way to affirm Confessional doctrine such as immutability and to deny to God the sort of reactive emotions the Open Theists want to predicate of Him. You may not agree with Dr. Gonzales, but I don’t think it is so simple to say that you have the Confessional upper hand. Furthermore, it is a non sequitur to me that you would think the confession of God without “body, part, or passions” requires us to affirm that God is “timeless pure act without any unactualized potency.” Even if that is true (and how one earth would we know? Certainly not from the Bible), there is very little connection between it and the language of the Confession.

    3. I don’t think it’s a good way forward to make Thomistic Natural Theology a mark of orthodoxy. Again, if you want to incorporate it into your theological enterprise you are obviously free to do so, but it shouldn’t be made a shibboleth. You seem to put totally stock in these quotes from Aquinas, but where does one find this idea of God not having any unrealized potency in the Confession (I’m not convinced that’s what “a most pure Spirit” means), let alone in Scripture? In fact, I submit that this view actually runs quite counter to many key Confessional doctrines. How is a God who can have no unactualized potency actually free (2.1) in the sense that He would have been free not to create? A state of affairs in which God, who obviously could have created, chose instead not to create would amount to a God with unactualized potency. More directly, how can we truly speak of his grace if we do not have a category for unactualized potency? God has the potency to condemn me, but graciously chooses to not actualize it. Instead, he actualizes a potency to save me, which is gracious precisely because he didn’t have to do it. When God is pure act, indivisible from his own desire and decree, don’t we lose a good footing on which to argue that the God who decreed sin is not the author if it (3.1)? What about those things which remain unrealized historical realities until God accomplishes them in space and time? I am thinking of 11.4 here. The Confession is very clear in denying Eternal Justification. Isn’t my justification (which is a one way legal declaration from God) an unrealized potency until God brings it about? Pleading divine timelessness is not a convincing solution, as it still leaves the Thomist with a view that God has never changed his stance toward me, even when I go from unjustified to justified. Saying that it is only really just a change in me, and that God is unmoved and changes nothing from his perspective seriously neuters the doctrine of Justification. An example of this is seen in Paul Helm (who champions your same views) when he writes:

    “So the truth about atonement, about reconciliation to God, has to be represented to us as if it implied a change in God, and so an inconsistency, an apparent contradiction, in his actions towards us. But in fact there is no change in God; he loves us from eternity. There is however, a change in us, a change that occurs as by faith Christ’s work is appropriated. The change is not from wrath to grace, but from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace” (Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, p. 395).

    These issues may not seem troubling to you, but they are troubling to many of us. If you can hold your Thomistic views on God without these contradictions, I won’t fault you for it. But I also won’t follow you in it.

    4. I noticed that you didn’t quote the Bible at all in this post. I would encourage you to do that, especially if you aim to win the reader’s conscience. I’m not sure what texts you would go to in order to support these ideas, but I for one would be much more open to them if someone would demonstrate them from Scripture without using a shoehorn. When Dr. Gonzales wrote his posts he exegeted the Scriptural proof texts of the Confession, as well as providing a mountain of Biblical support- plus he did it in a Confessional framework and quoted a pile of Reformed men. I get that this is post number one in a series, so feel free to blow this note out of the water with your future entries. But so far you have quoted a couple of Roman Catholics, zero Bible, and majored on the contributions of a Medieval Scholastic Thomas Aquinas who believed that faith is built upon the foundation of natural reason (I am thinking of my lecture notes from Dr. Waldron’s courses on Apologetics and Systematic Theology at this point. I don’t want to pretend like I’m some Aquinas scholar, but Dr. Waldron is very clear in his teaching on this subject, and I trust his scholarship. Perhaps that doesn’t mean much to you, as you’ve already said that Waldron is “wrong” on this topic, but it matters to me).

    That’s all for now. As I said, I prayed for you and will continue to do so. I am deeply saddened by the way that issues like this become divisive among the churches I love.

  3. Nicolas,

    I hope that you will excuse me for waiting to interact with your stated concerns until after the second half of the review has been posted and you have had the opportunity to read it. It has already been written and I think that you will find that some of your concerns will be addressed. My hope is that by waiting we both may be saved from lengthy comments and unhelpful banter.


  4. […] Divine Impassibility Under Attack: Does God have Passions? (Part 1) […]

  5. Nick,

    A few thoughts:

    As to your first point, only Chuck can answer why he addressed the arguments of Dr. Gonzales directly, but allow me to take a stab at it. It is possible that someone asked Chuck to address only Dr. Gonzales. It is possible that space limitations prevented Chuck from addressing at length the other men you cite (as you admit). Moreover, and this one is not a possibility, but a fact, Chuck is not in formal ecclesiastical fellowship with any of the other men you cite. Additionally, no one else has been as vocal on this topic as has been Dr. Gonzales. Those are but some of the factors that may or may not have played a role in Chuck’s decision.

    You are certainly correct to point out that neither Dr. Gonzales nor Rob Lister is alone in attempting to modify the doctrine of divine impassibility. Yet, what I find rather interesting about your list of luminaries is that all of them are from the post-Enlightenment era. You cite not one theologian from the confessional era. That alone should give you pause as to the pedigree of the views you champion. Moreover, I wonder if all of the theologians you cite would share all of the opinions expressed by Dr. Gonzales. Would all of them be comfortable with his idea of a relational mutability? Would all of them share his understanding of divine eternity? It seems unwise to lump all of these theologians together as if they are saying the exact same thing as Dr. Gonzales.

    As to point two: I hate to be blunt here, but here goes: you are wrong. There is, in fact, only one settled meaning of the confessional clause in question — and to suggest that the historic view is that of “Thomistic natural theology” is mistaken and misleading. It amounts to little more than an ad hominem argument, given the abundance of recent research that has demonstrated that Thomas’ theology was of a far different stripe than this ahistorical caricature. The view of our confession on this point, in fact, is the view of classical Christian theology, one that was grounded in Scripture and its proper interpretation. The confession is not unclear; the confession doesn’t lack clarity. The lack of clarity you suggest resides with those theologians of the modern era who either misunderstand the confession or who consciously reject the confession on this point. Letham’s work is a clear example. He suggests the language isn’t entirely clear. Why would four different ecclesiastical symbols continue to use this language if the meaning were unclear (39 articles, WCF, Savoy, 2nd LCF)? Moreover, his analysis suffers from a rather poor method. He cites the OED, a number of lexical studies from the era, and John Reynolds’ work, missing, however, entirely Reynolds’ own definition of passions (page 31 of Reynolds’ book), which would preclude the predication of passions to God. Letham doesn’t bother to cite one theologian from the era on the subject of this cluster of divine attributes. He doesn’t seek to understand the theological concerns underlying this cluster of divine attributes. He doesn’t even bother to look at any of the biblical annotations or commentaries from the era to see how they interpreted Acts 14:11-15, but instead makes an inference from the language of the KJV. This is poor historical scholarship that leads to poor theological conclusions.

    Your final comments on point two are also quite wrong. Though the language Chuck uses to speak of divine actuality, divine eternity, divine immutability, and thus divine impassibility, are not the ipssimum verba of the Bible, they do accurately summarize what the Bible teaches, unless of course we buy into the distinctly modern notion that the Bible doesn’t make any ontological claims God. The Reformers and the Reformed orthodox took seriously Exod 3:14, Mal 3:6, James 1:17 and other passages of the Bible, and, in explaining these passages according to the analogy of Scripture, argued that God, in fact, is eternal, pure act, immutable, and impassible. Your skepticism about these divine attributes, therefore, is unwarranted.

    Point three is just specious, historically and theologically. Thomistic natural theology is not an accurate description of Thomas’ theology, nor is it an accurate description of the confessional doctrine of God. You may be surprised to learn that before Thomas ever wrote either Summa, or the majority of his theological works, he had devoted the majority of his labors to biblical interpretation. In fact, the vast majority of his corpus is devoted to the genre of the biblical commentary. Now, you may yet disagree with his conclusions about the divine nature, but at least be even-handed in your assessment of him. Again, the caricature of Thomas that you perpetuate is just not accurate. He did not base his theology on reason. Recent scholarship has proved that in spades.

    Also on this third point, you suggest that the phrase “most pure Spirit” does not refer to God as pure act. You may not be convinced of that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. That is precisely what the phraseology means, and the rest of 2nd LCF 2:1 only confirms the point. You also misunderstand the distinction between potency and act, and how this is applied to God. Your argument, in fact, seems to suggest that there is no distinction between God’s essence and God’s works (the ad intra-ad extra distinction). You seem to mistake “act” for “activity.” Of course there are unrealized states of affairs in the world external to God, ones that he only actualizes in time. But that doesn’t mean that these are states of affairs in God, states of affairs in his essence. To say otherwise is to be guilty of some form of pantheism or panentheism. Indeed, the “states of affairs” that God chooses to actualize are not states of affairs in God, but states of affairs external to God. Divine freedom is not contradicted by the distinction, but is in fact only upheld by the distinction. If God could only actualize one potential state of affairs, that state of affairs would be necessary, and if necessary, then God is not free, for example, to create this world. Creation is necessary, and perhaps even necessary to God’s own essence, on the terms of your argument. Moreover, if we understand the distinction properly, what we discover is that to say there is potency in God, that there is some unrealized aspect of his nature, then not only do we lose the doctrine of divine simplicity, but we lose every other divine attribute. Why? Because then God is in need of someone or something to actualize that potency, and whatever that thing is, that would be God. To say that God is pure act, that there is no unrealized potential in him, is simply to say that God is what he is (sounds kind of like Exod 3:14 to me). It is to say there is no mutation, no alteration, no change in God. It is to say that God is perfect and infinite in his being. It is to say he is absolute. Despite your misgivings, this doctrine is fundamental. It has biblical grounds, theological warrant, and, I might add, practical significance. Would we really be able to worship a God that is anything less or other than pure act? Because a God that is anything less or other than pure act isn’t the God of the Bible.

    Your citation from Paul Helm doesn’t prove your point; in fact, it only underscores the point Chuck has made: the change entailed in justification is not a change in God, in his essence (how could it be, if we take seriously Mal 3:6, James 1:17, etc.?); it is a change with respect to our standing before God. It is the external work of God for us, not an internal work of the Godhead. This is a vital distinction, one your argumentation does not take seriously.

    Finally, as to your fourth point, perhaps you could have waited until the second half of Chuck’s essay was posted. Moreover, your caricature of Thomas is just that, a caricature. Read the opening sections of the Summa Theologica: Thomas does not base faith on natural reason, the good Dr. Waldron notwithstanding. Reason, for Thomas, is an instrument, an a posteriori tool employed in theological reflection. Thomas explicitly says that faith is grounded on supernatural revelation. You and I may disagree with how he proceeds thereafter, but at least read him charitably.

    That is all…

  6. Given that at the end of part 2 is titled “Conclusion” I am assuming this series is done. It indeed is short to interact with all Dr. Gonzales said. I have no desire to show my cards on this issues (and my cards don’t matter anyhow) but just as an FYI:

    Almost exactly one year ago, Pastor Rennie did an 8-part Sunday School series on Impassibility that is a much deeper interaction with the men quoted above, and he also does go into much Scripture and attempts to answer some of the questions asked here.

    You can find that, and more, here:

    I too pray for the unity of our churches. soli Deo gloria!

  7. Below is a link to a piece from an article on impassibility by James Dolezal that may help readers come to grips with this often difficult issue.

  8. Here is a Reformed Forum post that has relevant discussion on this issue.

  9. Hi Stefan,

    I pray you are well. It has been some time since we enjoyed those couple of evenings of good fellowship in Ben’s backyard, but I remember them quite fondly. I read your comment with real interest, and I did start jotting down some notes in reply. I have always had a deep respect for the mind God gave you and I also am aware of the caliber of study you’ve been engaged in for the last several years. In fact, I was very pleased for my former church to help in supporting you and your family in those studies. All that to say, you’re a guy I would want on my side in any sort of theological debate, rather than across the aisle. This desire is both because I have always enjoyed and respected you personally, but also because I respect your intellect, so I guess it’s a little self-serving on my part. Yet here we are.

    But this isn’t that full response. Brother, as I was reading your comments something really caught my eye, and to be honest, was a little shocking to me. You said:

    “Would we really be able to worship a God that is anything less or other than pure act? Because a God that is anything less or other than pure act isn’t the God of the Bible.”

    Now, I don’t want to overreact to that, but you’re going to need to help me. I understand and am as susceptible as anyone to getting a little carried away by rhetorical flourish, but surely you do not mean that. Telling someone that their God isn’t the God of the Bible is really the sort of language we should reserve for Mormons and other heretics. Yet you use it for those who would simply affirm what a Reformed luminary like Dabney has said. In the Banner of Truth edition Volume 1 of Dabney’s Discussions he explicitly identifies the “actus purus” [pure act] conception as a scholastic speculation. He says “…we deny that the speculation is correct, susceptible of proof, or possible to be valid to the human mind.”

    Now, maybe Dabney is wrong. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re right. But this is not some novel concept; Reformed theologians have been questioning “actus purus” for centuries. Even Dr. Barcellos just called this an “often difficult issue.” Are you really prepared to say that Dabney’s God is not the God of the Bible? Is there no room for charitable disagreement when the finite is grasping after the infinite? I understand that when we are talking to Mormons, the answer is no. But this isn’t like that. Are you really so willing to not only swipe away the testimony of Dabney, Hodge, Warfield, Waldron, Horton, et. al. and say not only that you disagree with them, but that their God is not the God of the Bible?

    Stefan, I’m not trying to score a point here. This isn’t a game to me. I truly did find that rhetoric over the top and earnestly hope you will simply walk it back and affirm that if so many godly Reformed theologians have believed something, it is at least worthy of your respect even if you disagree. It certainly isn’t deserving of the rhetoric you use against it in that statement. Brother, please don’t say that. I will pray for my own humility in responding to your other points, especially if there is anything I should concede to you.

    With honest concern and real prayers,

  10. Nick,

    I recently read a statement from Aimee Byrd quoted on the Heidelblog.

    “I’ve recently said on a Mortification of Spin podcast that niceness is the Eddie Haskell of evangelicalism. It’s haskellmanipulating, but not really loving, manners without truth. Have we become more concerned with our expectations of politeness at the expense of truth? I think we all do at times. We think that the opposite of nice is mean. This is not so. Nice is people-pleasing, and we like to be popular, don’t we? But we need to remember what kind of theologians we are. We are not theologians of our own glory, we are theologians of the cross.”

    Though it may not sound “nice”, I have to agree with Stefan’s statement: “Because a God that is anything less or other than pure act isn’t the God of the Bible.” This statement is not intended to place those who differ outside the bounds of salvation. No one is suggesting that Dr. Gonzales, yourself, Dabney, etc. are not Christians or that the churches involved are not true churches. You have simply misread and personalized Stefan’s comment. However, you also seem to minimize the importance of what he is saying. The God of the Bible cannot be both pure actuality and not pure actuality; we cannot both be correct. One will lead to doxology and the other to further error. That the God of the Bible must be pure actuality has been the argument throughout mainstream Christian tradition for millennia. This conclusion did not originate with Stefan. Therefore, one of us must be making a grave mistake. It is grave because it has to do with our conception of the God with whom we have to do. “An idol is a worthless doctrine” (Jer 10:8), and as Calvin said our heart is an idol factory. We must guard ourselves against false notions of God, some of which, when entertained or worked out to their logical conclusion, can indeed place us outside the bounds of salvation. This is not a small issue with few consequences.

    Brother, this is not personal so don’t make your comments personal. As Aimee Byrd asked, “Have we become more concerned with our expectations of politeness at the expense of truth?” You have said that you are “not one of those guys who want to write hundreds of pages in a comment box. In fact, I don’t have much stamina for prolonged online conversation period, so don’t feel like I want to duke it out in a bunch of witty back and forth banter.” I will take you at your word. But I should add that I am not one of those guys either. So let’s not do it.


  11. Ok, Pastor Rennie, that’s fine. For the record, I don’t think I was exalting niceness over truth at all. In fact, Stefan said plenty of direct things (as did I in my earlier notes) that I took zero umbrage with. It was just the one thing that I thought was out of bounds, but we clearly disagree on that. Also, I was not trying to be manipulative in my interactions, I just know how my heart is prone to turn bitter in disagreements, and I wanted to set a different tone. I really have prayed more for both of you in the last two days than ever before. May our vast and amazing God shower you and the congregation you care for with the richest of blessings.

    Grace and Peace,

  12. Nick,

    I appreciate the kind words.

    I suppose my statement could be read as rhetorical flourish, but it was not intended to be simply rhetorical. Allow me to explain, and to answer your concerns.

    I’d also like to ask that, even if you continue to disagree with that one particular statement, that you would seriously inquire as to the other points I made — and, at that, not because I made them, but because they are representative of the Reformed theology codified and elaborated during the 16th and 17th centuries. Please, even if you disagree with that one statement, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    All that aside, It seems to me that you are reading into my (admittedly brief) statement an accusation of heresy against those who reject the doctrine of divine actuality. If you read my statement in context, I was neither explicitly nor implicitly calling anyone a heretic. My intent was to underscore that if our worship is to be consistent with God’s nature as revealed in Scripture (think, John 4:24), then to deny an aspect of that self-revelation is to err not only doctrinally but also vitally and practically. In order to clarify the point, allow me to introduce a distinction, one with which you are probably familiar, viz., the distinction between heresy and error. Heresy is damnable .Error, for which we are culpable, is nevertheless not a damnable offense. Even though it wasn’t the point of my statement, let me say that I am not accusing the list of luminaries you cite of heresy. I do think they err, and quite seriously. And I do think that if they were to persist in rejecting the doctrine of divine actuality (that is, if they understood what the doctrine teaches and its foundation in Scripture, but were to persist in rejecting it), they would be in persistent error, and, as such would, in a relative, not absolute sense, fail to worship the God of the Bible.

    My point was simply this: the God of the Bible is pure act. If we say otherwise, then we are not worshipping God in spirit and in truth. I realize that is a rather black and white statement, one that doesn’t account for the vagaries of pastoral ministry to people who have never thought through the issue of the nature of God. But we who are Christ’s ambassadors, have to be willing to say that divine eternity, divine immutability, divine actuality, divine simplicity, divine impassibility are not peripheral matters.


  13. One more thing: in my original reply, I cited John Reynolds. It should be Edward Reynolds. In my defense, there was a theologian by the name of John Reynolds in the early 17th century. Nevertheless, mea culpa.

  14. As a former Roman Catholic, as a graduate of Canisius College of Buffalo, New York, trained in Thomistic philosophy under the Jesuit educational system, I take special interest in the high value some scholars in this discussion place on the viewpoint of Thomas Aquinas. The Lord Jesus Christ saved me out of the pit of Roman Catholicism and our of the pit of Thomism. Reformed scholars have every right to reject the viewpoints of Thomas Aquinas. James Nickel, in “Mathematics: Is God Silent ? “, writes (pp. 154 – 155)

    ” Aquinas placed human reason on par with biblical revelation. Although he
    believed that reason must be submitted to revelation, both could be relied upon
    in order to acquire truth. Contrary to Augustine, who said that we ” believe in order
    to understand “, Aquinas reversed the emphasis to “we understand in order to
    believe”. The sad fact is that eventually reason and revelation confronted each
    other in war, with reason emerging as the victor.
    Jeremy Jackson, Church historian, states:
    “In harmonizing Aristotle with the Bible, Aquinas … gave a special place
    to reason independent of God’s intervention, which would help launch the
    whole emphasis upon human self-help in the Renaissance period, and
    which continues right down to modern times.”
    To the men of the Reformation, the final reference point in all thinking,
    the ultimate in intelligibility, rested in the biblical revelation of the infinite,
    personal God. Concomitant with this viewpoint, the men of the Renaissance
    reintroduced, or rebirthed, the old Greek idea about the autonomy of man’s
    mind. To them, the final reference point in all thinking rested not in God,
    but in man. ” [Jeremy Jackson, “No Other Foundation: The Church Through
    Twenty Centuries”, Westchester: Cornerstone Books., 1980, p. 110]

    Why is the thinking of Aquinas being given such credibility in this discussion of divine attributes? Did any of the Reformers appeal to Thomas Aquinas as an trusted authority in their writings?

  15. Obviously, we are dealing with a very deep and difficult issue here, with good and dear brothers on opposite sides of the aisle. At the end of the day, none of us will enter glory having had a perfectly correct understanding of God. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way one of those “doctrine divides, love unites,” people. Theology is extremely important, which is why we wrestle through these types of controversial matters. That said, having read both, Dr. Gonzales’s paper, as well as brother Rennie’s critique, I would be sorely, sorely disappointed to see Dr. Gonzales or the church at Taylors, shunned because of his expressed view. That would be the greater problem to me. I just hope that this matter is dealt with graciously and respectfully. If it is not, I fear that this will cause an unnecessary avalanche, leading to a pour testimony from Reformed Baptist Churches. I realize that I am a “nobody,” but speaking for myself, HOW this is handled is as critical as the doctrinal debate itself.

  16. Stefan (is it Dr. Stefan now? If so, congratulations),

    Thanks for that clarification, and for hearing my concern in the spirit it was given. What you say is very helpful. As to your request, I have read your initial reply to me a couple times already, and will do so again with an open mind and an open Bible. As you are very aware, I have had occasion to be studying this issue quite a bit over the last year, and while I do feel much of it is beyond me, I remain quite unconvinced of the Thomist approach.

    What I am convinced of is that this ought to be a cordial discussion between brothers. I believe that two men can disagree on this level of detail and both fully subscribe the 1689 without any breach of fellowship, as Pastor Grimaldi has already stated above. Although I have stated my own Confessional concerns with the impact of a Thomistic interpretation of Chapter 2 on the wider teaching of our Confession, I would not question yours or Pastor Rennie’s subscription in good faith to those other doctrines, even if I see some inconsistency.

    I mentioned a further reply, but I think at this point my original comments either still speak for themselves, or Dr. Gonzales has answered your other points better than I could have in his comment on part 2 of Pastor Rennie’s review. I do look forward to seeing you in April, and be assured that I will greet you with a smile and a handshake.

    Press on in the cause of Christ out there in the wilds of the NW.

    In Him,

  17. A few thoughts (actually, five):

    1. The doctrine of impassibility is not an exclusively Thomistic position; it pre-dates Thomas. It was included in the WCF/Savoy/2LCF because the framers believed it to reflect the teaching of the Bible as articulated by the Christian theological tradition. I say this for any readers who might not have know this and assume many others already did.

    2. One of my concerns about the newer attempts to (re?)formulate the doctrine of impassibility can be seen in this statement by Dr. Oliphint in his God with us: “We mean that God freely determined to take on attributes, characteristics, and properties that he did not have, without creation. In his taking on these characteristics, we understand as well that whatever properties he takes on, they cannot be of the essence of who he is, nor can they be necessary to his essential identity as God. In other words, given that whatever properties he takes on are a result of his free knowledge and will, he did not have to take them on; he could have chosen not to create or decree anything. Thus, his condescension means that he is adding properties and characteristics, not to his essential being, as the triune God … but to himself” (p. 110). In a discussion I linked to above, I responded to this statement this way (btw, I am not posting this in order to get into a long discussion. I simply want folks to see that there are some problems with advocating that God wills Himself to be something in creation He was not without creation): “I am no expert in this field and have not read the book but this statement seems to me to be quite problematic. A few questions/observations. Aren’t the divine attributes “identical with and inseparable from the essentia Dei”? (Muller, Dictionary, 283). But in this quote we are told that God *takes on attributes* within creation. The essentia Dei became what it was not? How would one uphold divine simplicity in light of this? The essence of God becomes the result of what is willed by God? God is contingent upon what He wills Himself to become? Is God the absolute ultimate or the “becoming ultimate”? God has willed to move from potency to actuality? Also, is it not true that all things outside of God are not God? Creation is outside of God. If God takes “on attributes…that he did not have, without creation,” then does it not follow that God became what He created Himself to become, since without creation He was not what He become [sic] within creation?” Further on I said, “My problem seems to be with the assertion that God took on attributes He did not have. This seems to deny that attributes and essence are coextensive. It seems to assert that God becomes what God wills, that attributes can be multiplied, that He can become tomorrow what He was not today.” I know that adjectives such as relative, contingent, etc. are utilized to qualify what one means by “to take on attributes.” But do not the words “relative” and “contingent” bring us into the realm of creation and if one claims that God takes on such attributes via creation, it seems to me that one would be advocating that God is both eternal being and non-eternal being in some sense(s). And if He is eternal being and non-eternal being, would not that compromise the distinct orders of being – i.e., God and creatures? Maybe I just don’t get it.

    3. I am pretty sure (i.e., I have not seen evidence to the contrary, though it possibly exists :-)) the view that Pastor Rennie is advocating is the view of the framers of the Confessions mentioned above. As to why some (even many!) Reformed theologians after the seventeenth century (e.g., Hodge, Dabney, Warfield, etc.) have modified the doctrine, I can only guess, but this much I know – it seems to me that either they do not believe the Bible teaches what the Confession affirms to be so, though they might not put it that way, or they do not understand what the doctrine asserts. I am pretty sure I have been in both of the above categories within my life-time.

    4. I found this helpful concerning God’s love. It was written by a Thomist, but I think it reflects both the Bible and the classical tradition on God’s love, God as pure act, His immutability, His simplicity, and His impassibility. “God actually interacts with and relates to us as he truly is in the fullness of his divinity. God need not ‘re-fashion’ himself in order to interact with us.” ~ Thomas Weinandy. In his up-coming article on impassibility, Dr. James Dolezal says something similar, “God just is the love, compassion, and the consuming fire of holiness in virtue of which he loves, is merciful, and demonstrates his wrath against sin. The so-called divine emotions do not come upon him as passions, but are eternally actual in God in that they are identical with his very essence.”

    5. Lastly, I think discussions like this can be helpful. But I also think that blog posts and comment sections have their limits as far as appropriate/adequate forums to discuss such vital issues. So, if I do not reply to comments to my comments, I hope you will understand.

  18. For those interested in some historical perspective on the way that the Particular Baptists and other 17th century theologians spoke of these issues, reference the following:

    Hercules Collins:
    Benjamin Keach:
    Edward Drapes:

    John Norton (not a PB, but read by PB´s)

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